War on Drugs in Mexico (Civil war - Mexican cartels versus Mexicans)
War on Drugs in Mexico (Civil war - Mexican cartels versus Mexicans)

What works

Throwing in a map is smart – most Americans do not know where all the Mexican states are. Breaking the murders down by location is also smart. A national total would obscure part of the point, which is that the drug wars in Mexico are not hitting the whole country equally. Some areas are much more important to the cartels and are getting walloped while others are relatively unscathed, at least in terms of murders and other violence. Including the map and breaking the graph down by geographical boundaries both communicate the geographical specificity of the murder problem.

What needs work

This graphic illustrates just one element, one metric, of a whole constellation of economic and social problems. In journalism, getting any graphics into an article on a tight deadlines is difficult. One could argue that since the troubles in Mexico are not so new, it might be worth putting some extra time into the production of a graphic that could display murders, kidnappings (of whom and for what purpose – money, political deals, revenge), the quantity and type of drugs trafficked from which areas, trafficked/processed through which locations, for distribution where and by which cartels.

Besides a comprenhensive narrative of the trade, which is probably nearly impossible to construct because if it were easy to get information about where drugs are grown, processed and distributed I would be amazed. However, there is at least one other way to demonstrate the violence in a more comprehensive fashion, just by making some assumptions about social/economic networks with respect to the people murdered. The information on kidnappings may not be available – the article mentioned that five journalists had been kidnapped but only one was reported to the police. So we are left with murders, and that is probably why the Washington Post ran the graphic that it did.

Widespread murder creates a terror society – one in which fears and suspicions impact daily life over a sustained period of time. But it can be quite difficult to quantify terror and many graphics rely on quantifiable data. The article is well written and its narrative does a good job of conveying the magnitude of the drug violence and its encroachment on the lives of everyday folks.

The spasm of killing, kidnapping and extortion in the northeastern states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon — vital trade, energy and manufacturing centers on the Texas border — marks a serious escalation in the U.S.-backed drug war and comes with a 21st-century twist: Mexican officials struggle to calm what they call a mass psychosis of fear, stoked by social-media chatter and grisly YouTube videos, by using Twitter to post warnings about “situations of risk.” — William Booth

There is clearly good reason for graphics to accompany text – each play unique roles. That being said, I still think there may be a way to create a network graph that demonstrates the social span of the violence. It could look at one of the hard hit communities in which all people are assumed to be alive and unrelated to anyone who was murdered. Let’s imagine one dot for each person, colored green to show they are alive. Now, a person who is murdered will become a black X and all of their family members and close friends will become black dots (still alive, but severely impacted by violence since they lost friends or family). In a perfect world, more distant friends would become brown dots. But it would be difficult to make a map like that because it is difficult to identify looser friendships. Use guest books at funerals to gather data? Facebook? Hard to say. Kidnappings, where known, could be similarly mapped. After constructing a network map like this, it would be much easier to see that one murder impacts a much wider swath of a community. Once there are many murders, there will be very few people left as green dots. Widespread murder is like necrotic tissue.

Where the persons murdered and kidnapped were wage earners, it would also be possible to demonstrate the income lost by the community as compared to the estimated value of the trafficking activity over a given time period. Of course the value of human life should not be measured by the money they failed to earn because they were dead. It’s just as silly as reducing the value of a human life to the market value of the chemical components of the human body. The point of such a comparison would be to demonstrate the economic impact on the community rather than some sort of death calculus.


Booth, William. (21 April 2010) “Drug war violence appears in Mexico’s Northeast, near Texas border”. In The Washington Post, World, North America section.